Here is the church/And here is the steeple/Open the door/And see all the…projectors.

There are plenty of people still in the pews, to finish the nursery rhyme as intended. Statistics which indicate that more Americans regularly attend services than the citizens of other developed countries, a presidential election that is said to have hinged on “moral values,” and a building boom in Christian churches, particularly in the south and southwestern United States, are all signs that parishes will continue to bustling in the coming years. And more than ever before, theology is walking hand-in-hand with technology; the word of God is being conveyed through up-to-date delivery systems. You've read about it in these pages and in other entertainment technology books over the years: at “mega-churches,” which draw upwards of 15,000 congregants scattered among different communities or even different states, Sunday services are now as sophisticated as a U2 show or a Broadway musical — HDTV screens and fiber-optic uplinks can bring a pastor, preaching to an audience of thousands at home, to thousands more at satellite facilities hundreds of miles away, in seamless simulcasts. It continues to retain its status as the true “recession”-proof market that has been, pardon the pun, a blessing to installers, dealers, and manufacturers.

Houses of Worship first started adding the tools of the contemporary theatrical experience to their services about a decade ago. Improvements in microphones, PA systems, and speakers came first; these have also been heard at Catholic churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship. Since then, Christian churches, more eager to engage newcomers than religions with a “born and bred” populace, have added projection and lighting to their facilities. At these contemporary churches, a service is just the main event within a collection of activities that can include singles nights, special programs for children to seniors, visits from Christian bands, and parish-produced theatre shows. Most of these are designed by church volunteers, who with proper guidance can create lighting looks and sound effects on the stage to replicate those of the cinema's Passion of the Christ, which is expected to have a profound impact on this Easter season's productions.

Performance engineering firm Clark ProMedia of Alpharetta, GA, does almost all of its business with churches. One of its first projects, in 1995, was for the formidable Northpoint Community Church in Alpharetta, a 16,000-18,000 member church that was building a 3,000-seat room. “That's about the size of an airplane hangar, and initially, it had the acoustics of one,” says Matt Card, the firm's vice president of client development. “The first challenge was how to create an intimate space from this very large, potentially impersonal room. Other churches followed. Then, about seven years ago, what we started hearing was, ‘It's not good enough for us to be the best-sounding church. Where people are spending the other six-and-a-half days of the week is really what's setting the dialogue, and to get their attention with our message we have to communicate in the same way.’ What we've been seeing in the last four years is a complete shift in the way construction of churches is handled, with more and earlier involvement from us. It's not steeples and stained glass, which many architects and general contractors still regard as church design, but about multi-functional, highly utilitarian, almost conference center-like facilities that minimize building costs and maximize the communication medium.”

“Communication between the church and the architect is improving,” says Alan Knapp, who heads the audiovisual media department at City Bible Church in Portland, OR, and put in a new lighting rig in time for the past holiday season. “You can have a million dollar sound system, but if you put it in a can it still sounds like a can, so the church has to be built right.” City Bible is one of the 100 or so churches configured like an airline's “hub and spoke” system, with a West and an East campus and another satellite being built in another city, to be launched in the spring. It has a full complement of SGM moving lights, supplied by Orlando, FL-based Techni-Lux, plus LED and scenic equipment that would not be out of place on the New York stage. “Worship and Broadway technology are the same, but today's churches aren't on shoestring budgets. And they have to keep on top of what's out there, as younger parishioners in particular know what good lighting and good sound is and they want to see and hear it.”

For Clark ProMedia, the relatively unsung church market has proven a David, slaying the Goliath of a recession that has hit other sectors hard. In economically troubled times, people continue to go to church, and pass the hat, while cutting back in other areas. Clark ProMedia has grown from 250 to 300 percent since 2000, and has projects in 23 states, ranging from below 700-seat rooms (which Card defines as a small church), 700- to 1,500-seat rooms (mid-sized), and the 4,500-5,000 arena rooms at mega-churches. But, while “a boatload” of 1,000-seat and above churches are willing to spend in the “multi-hundred thousands of dollars” to give their parishioners the perceptual punch of a concert extravaganza, the company takes an almost paternal interest in how they use their money.

“At a Britney Spears or a U2 show, the equipment, and the people running it, are top of the line,” Card says. “However, even the biggest mega-church is fortunate if it has four people on staff who by the loosest standards could be considered professionals. In our roles as a partner and an educator, we fight tooth-and-nail about digital boards, for example, with churches; sure, they're great, but they absolutely need someone who can own that board. We are very judicious about where we introduce that technology.” Meyer Sound loudspeakers, Yamaha's new PD5D console, Christie projectors, and ETC and Martin Professional lights are examples of “wow” technology that, in Card's opinion, don't lead to the “ugh” factor of inattentive use or breakdowns. He adds that “service is a huge factor, as there's no way to cancel a Sunday service if something goes down and can't be fixed in time.” As churches talk amongst themselves about what is and isn't working, manufacturers who can't provide adequate service don't have a prayer.

“That we do self-powered systems takes away a lot of the complexity,” explains Larry The O, communications manager at Meyer Sound Laboratories in Berkeley, CA. “They don't have to deal with limiters and setting crossover points; whatever's coming out of that mixer, they just slam a cable from that end into the speaker and they're good to go, which has a lot of appeal. And that opened up a need for education, something the company is now extremely involved in at this more basic level of user. The worship market has had a really good attitude about this; they don't want to become audio engineers, and instead just want to get good results out of their systems, and to be able to talk intelligently to whatever consultants they bring in. In turn, we want our dealers, consultants, and installers to provide as much education as they can.”

“Churches have had such bad sound and bad lighting for decades that they've finally woken up and smelled the coffee,” says Kevin Myers, who runs a technical program at the Manassas Assembly of God church in Bristow, VA. “So now they spend more, but they only have to spend it once, not over and over again, as was the case when they were buying gear that failed every two years.”

To get the most from their equipment purchases, some churches hire designers with production experience “to take what's best from that world and put their religious message on top of it, which is revolutionary,” Card says. One of these is Myers, who for 12 years toured with the Christian vocal band Glad before coming off the road. “Our Easter shows redefined the word ‘average,’” Myers laughs, “but with improved lighting and sound we're making the environment look more like the Kennedy Center and less like a church. There's nothing chumpy about it: Everything we do now gets the full banana, with signature lighting looks from our youth groups to our women's prayer breakfasts. I work with five people who really know what they're doing, and two who are advanced, a 27-year-old and his mom, of all people, who has an incredible knack for programming and color choice.”

“I'll come to the first show that a church client designs, and the second and third. I will not leave a facility that has two or three looks and no idea how we got them. It's disappointing to go into a church that has just two looks that it goes through all the time or where the lights are just bagged up somewhere,” says Tony Hansen, a systems consultant and resident lighting designer at Techni-Lux, who has worked with Myers and Knapp on their churches. Hansen, who formerly worked at Vari-Lite, has done projects for Disney and Universal Studios, and says some of his church clients “look to me for a theme park-type design.” This would have been heresy in the past. “Lighting, for example, tended to scare churches, due to its rock-and-roll feel. But we tell them that it's all up to the way the operator uses it. The light itself can be used both for churches and concerts and it doesn't have to move, it can be used to create a mood or atmosphere or simply to fit more illumination into a tight space, and we add that a modernized lighting system can save them money. Plus, the clarity of the light is as important as the clarity of the sound; some contemporary churches have a white, Wal-Mart look, all under fluorescents, which doesn't have the illumination quality of a traditional church.”

In the fast-changing church market, it's not just the look of the lighting that's swinging back toward something that represents a more traditional experience. Says T.C. Furlong, owner of audio specialist T.C. Furlong Inc. in Lake Forest, IL, “One trend I hear about is churches shifting back to more traditional worship, which had been a shrinking market. A church had an identity, either traditional or contemporary; now, we have churches who come to us and say, ‘Can you help us find a solution for both the older, traditional congregants, and the younger, contemporary ones?’ So it's either two services in the same space, so they can maintain both types of worship, which is a huge challenge — contemporary and traditional are as different as a rock band and a string quartet. Or they want a blended service, with room acoustics and sound systems that fit both. That's difficult to do well, and many consultants are struggling with how best to do it. The trend is trying to do more to expand the breadth of the experience.”

The other trend is that entertainment technology manufacturers have had a great awakening regarding the worship market. “Two years ago Techni-Lux was the only lighting company at Inspiration,” says Hansen, referring to the annual trade show geared to the HOW market. “Last year there were a ton of them. The competition is coming in.” Myers says that besides “helium-inflated equipment that's easier for me to lift,” he'd like to see the High End Systems Catalyst; become more affordable, “because there are a lot of events that take place in our room that do not involve the stage whatsoever, but need projection and lighting capabilities elsewhere in the space to create environments.” Given that the congregation of companies exploring this market is rising, his prayers may be answered.

Robert Cashill is a former editor of Lighting Dimensions.